It’s the end of an era in Seattle. Our last great hometown pitchman, one of Seattle’s best-known faces died this week, though most people don’t know his name. Show his picture to any person on a Seattle street and they’ll tell you: “That’s Vern Fonk.”
Except, he isn’t. Or, now, he wasn’t.
Vern Fonk Insurance specializes in auto insurance for high-risk clients. Vern Fonk established the company in 1952, but virtually no one today could pick Vern out of a photo lineup. The real Vern Fonk retired from the firm in the late ’90s. No, the face that all Seattle knows as Vern Fonk was in fact the company’s president, Robert Thielke.
Thielke joined the team at Vern Fonk in 1989, and in 1994 he began to appear in the late-night ads that would make him a staple of the Pacific Northwest television. The ads parodied movies, TV shows, music videos, anything. Vern Fonk ads were always cheesy, often inane, frequently off-color, and occasionally even brilliant in their spoofs of popular culture. From Star Wars to Napoleon Dynamite, nothing was off-limits. The idea started when Vern Fonk himself suggested they use an ad to parody Forrest Gump. They did, it was a hit, and an icon was born.
Like most towns, Seattle has a history of kooky hometown pitchmen. Jack Roberts (of Jack Roberts Appliance) was my favorite. We met him a few years before his death, and he was an ebullient, genuinely kind, and supremely goofy guy who loved his Packers with a passion; in short, he really was the guy on the ads who shouted “I won’t be undersold!” just before getting a pie in the face (Yes, his ads were that corny.)
But Thielke’s ads for Vern Fonk Insurance were more than just corny. They were good satire, poking fun at our collective consciousness’ Shiny Object of the moment, yet still delivering an effective sales pitch.
Thielke was the last of Seattle’s great hometown pitchmen. The few that remain are the same tired, unexciting, unimaginative car salesmen you see at odd hours of the night, their ads stuck between a ten-year-old rerun of “Golden Girls” and the shout-and-spit sermonizing of some pastor/activist/whatever. Thielke was nothing like those guys. Thielke was funny.
Even though Robert Thielke wasn’t actually Vern Fonk, to me, he will always be Vern Fonk.
Happy Trails, Rob.